The Common Good

Building Better Business DNA

Being a socialentrepreneur used to be a lonely endeavor. I grew up believing that to be in business meant leaving your soul at the front door -- being ruthless, shrewd, and above all focused on profitability at any cost. But as a businessman, I found myself less interested in the bottom line of profit than in the bottom line of community impact. For example, I started Busboys and Poets as a restaurant and gathering place, but also a social enterprise -- a business with a conscience -- in Washington, D.C.'s U Street neighborhood.

Having grown up in D.C., I was amazed at the dramatic changes that swept various neighborhoods in the 1990s. The U Street corridor in particular was undergoing some of the most vivid transformation.

Dubbed "Black Broadway" back in the early '40s and '50s, this neighborhood was the lifeline for the African-American community in a racially segregated city. It was the stomping ground for some of the early 20th century's most notable African Americans, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. But in the wake of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the once-thriving social and cultural mecca of the African-American community became a drug haven, as businesses shuttered their windows and went elsewhere.

The boom of the 1990s brought about a huge influx of young white professionals and new buildings and businesses, all taking advantage of relatively low real estate prices. I remember driving on U Street, awestruck at the dramatic shift. I did a double take when, at the base of a new apartment building named in honor of the great composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, I saw a tanning salon. The tension around such a business was palpable. "These people just don't get it," an African-American friend confided. "This is the ugly head of gentrification showing itself; they're trying to erase our history," another added.

It was comments like these that planted the seed for Busboys and Poets. Our tribal statement articulates that we are a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted -- a space where art, culture, and politics intentionally collide. I believe that by creating such a space, we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.

But I used to think: Am I the only businessperson who thinks this way? I started seeking like-minded entrepreneurs -- individuals who were more interested in mission statements than profit and loss statements. This is what led me to the B Corporation model.

I first learned about it at a conference for social entrepreneurs. Created in 2007 and administered by the nonprofit B Lab, the B Corporation model is unique in that it sets up a legal framework for businesses that are here for the long haul. The framework, which all certified B Corporations must adopt, makes it a legal requirement, rather than an option, for the corporation to be mindful of the triple bottom line: responsibility not only for the financial health of the company but, just as important, to the environment, to the employees, and to the community.

The B Corporation Impact Assessment, which all B Corporations must complete (and 10 percent of which are audited each year), helps businesses better understand the ingredients and standards of socially responsible businesses. It quantifies the triple bottom line and provides benchmarks for better businesses to reach.

Every B Corporation leader I've met is out to change the world -- to make his or her community and the planet more livable. The model is one that not only validates best practices but also helps to assuage the dissonance inherent in the Wall Street model, which separates business practices from real community impact. Most important, it has given my business the structural DNA necessary to grow while maintaining its values.

Andy Shallal is an artist and the entrepreneur behind Busboys and Poets and Eatonville, restaurants in Washington, D.C. This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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